Gold-painted temples, rambling palaces, geisha-lined tea houses: Kyoto is the romantic vision of old-world Japan you see in films. In contrast to the glassy skyscrapers of capital Tokyo, the ancient city of Kyoto – Japan’s spiritual heart – brings picture-perfect vistas and tranquil throw-back moments. All this, of course, makes Kyoto exceedingly popular with visitors – especially during the sakura cherry-blossom season in spring. But plan your trip right and you can still find quiet corners conducive to moments for solo self-reflection.
Japan is a great country for solo travellers, and Kyoto is as good a city for exploring alone as any other in Japan. Perhaps even more so, given that many of its highlights, from the tranquil temples to the grand museums, are best experienced in silent reflection. Kyoto is very safe, especially when staying in the central quarters of the city where you don’t need to worry, even after dark.
Many people come to Kyoto for just a couple of days to hit the guidebook sights: the temples of Kinkaku-ji (gold pavilion) and Ginkaku-ji (silver pavilion), the vast wooden Kiyomizu-dera, as well as the geisha district of Gion and the bamboo forests of Arashiyama. However, Kyoto has so much more to give, with more than 2,000 temples and shrines in the wider city, as well as top museums, historic landscaped gardens and castles. If you are able to extend your stay to a week or longer, you won’t regret it.
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Many travellers coming to Japan are keen to stay at a ryokan, a traditional inn with tatami-mat floors, sliding shoji doors and roll-out futons. With its old-world atmosphere, Kyoto is the prime place to try one out for a night or two. You can find them at every price point, in traditional or more contemporary iterations, and in the heart of the city or further out. Most include all meals as part of the authentic experience. If you want to keep it simple, Kyoto also has international chains, as well as some lovely premium boutique options.
The city’s most traditional district, home to the world-famous geishas and their tea houses, provides top-notch atmosphere with narrow cobbled streets and wooden machiya houses. Gion has some of the city’s best ryokans, too (if not necessarily the cheapest). It can be busy with visitors during the day, but when the tourists have cleared out after dinnertime, it’s enticingly sleepy.
The top sights of Kyoto are rather spread out, but if you base yourself near Kyoto’s main station you can get almost anywhere you want to at speed. While you’ll lack the historic vibe you get in Gion, you will find plentiful shops and restaurants open at all hours. Kiyomizu-dera, the Unesco-listed temple, and its surrounding traditional shopping district and restaurants, is an easy hop away.
It might be most famous for its photogenic bamboo forest, but Arashiyama holds other cards in the form of its winding Katsura River, cherry blossom-dotted banks and serene temples off the beaten track. As it’s far in Kyoto’s west, it will take a bit longer to reach than some of the other big-hitting sights, but this is a great bet if you want to self-explore lesser-covered corners of the city.
The Nishiki Market, stuffed with street-food stalls and foodie souvenir shops, is on your doorstep in Nakauoyacho, but so are some of the city’s best shops, from underground department stores to big-brand fashion boutiques. You’re not far from Kyoto Castle or Gion, either. A great bet if you want to see a different, buzzier side to Kyoto beyond the historic Unesco-listed sites.
With so much to discover in this ancient capital, you can’t expect to see all of Kyoto on one visit. But if it’s your first time here, start by hitting these highlights.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
The orange torii gates that dot this south Kyoto shrine are the setting for many a holiday snapshot. Cross under a snaking row of them to enter the lower shrine, then hike the 5km (3mi) pilgrimage circle around Mount Inari’s wooded grounds taking in hundreds of miniature versions. Afterwards, stock up on traditional snacks and souvenirs in the little shops outside the train station.
You can’t leave Kyoto without seeing the luminous gold leaf-painted exterior of Kinkaku-ji, a Unesco World Heritage Site. If you visit on a calm blue-sky day, the serene lake in front of the pavilion acts like a mirror, reflecting its postcard image. Take time to wander the surrounding landscaped gardens, too.
Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design
Learn about Kyoto’s 75 traditional crafts – from kimono-making to mask-carving for noh theatre performances – at the slickly designed Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design, in the city centre, opened in 2020. Interactive displays show off the painstaking work that goes into bringing the precious items to life, while in-person craftspeople run demonstrations. The gift shop is stuffed with top-quality examples of ceramics and textiles to take home.
While you’ll of course be able to find the Japanese classics – sushi, ramen – in Kyoto, the city has its own traditional food scene that is fairly distinct, so be sure to try out at least some of the local specialities.
Tofu is one example: the local water is primed for the popular soya product, and you’ll find a number of traditional restaurants serving it up any which way, from warm and silken to firm and simmered in a hot pot.
Kaiseki, the traditional multi-course cuisine of elaborate dishes traditionally served before tea ceremonies, is another local must-try. The menu will be different everywhere you visit and will change with the seasons, always showcasing what is fresh. They don’t tend to be the cheapest, so you might want to book just one kaiseki meal during your stay.
Speaking of tea ceremonies: many travellers are keen to try one, and you can sign up for versions that are short (perhaps half an hour) or longer at tea shops and temples throughout the city. Though, if you just want the great matcha – bitter, thick Japanese green tea – from nearby Uji tea fields, you can get that in cafes without standing on ceremony.
Yatsuhashi, traditional triangle-shaped sweets made from rice-flour dough and stuffed with red bean or other flavoured pastes, is another speciality sold at traditional shops throughout Kyoto.
Even though geishas are synonymous with Kyoto, you probably won’t get up close to one – their hosted events are notoriously exclusive, and not available to book by the general public (though some top hotels can help). In the early evening, you might be lucky enough to spot some on their way to engagements in Gion, but keep a respectful distance and your camera to yourself. Look out for “no photography” signs in particular – you can now get a hefty fine of up to ¥10,000 (£63) for snapping pics in certain private Gion streets, whether or not you’re pointing your camera at a geisha.
Kyoto has a good bus and metro network, which is much cheaper than taxis and has announcements and displays in English. Because sights are spread out and you won’t be able to see everything anyway, plan your personal highlights before booking your hotel to ensure you aren’t spending your whole trip commuting.
When visiting temples and shrines, it’s respectful to wash your hands and mouth at the purification fountain by the main gates. Take your lead from the locals, and you’ll get the hang of it in no time.
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